Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Maybe the most important counsel a commentator on this week’s lectionary texts can offer to whoever hopes to preach them is to keep reading (I’m sure there’s a proverb about this somewhere, but darned if I can come up with one). The lectionary I consulted began with the text from Job, followed by excerpts from the 34th Psalm, and the combination left me, quite honestly, flabbergasted.
I know it’s just a story, and one with parallels in ancient Near Eastern pagan myths at that. I also know that the ending (chapter 42) is not altogether in keeping with the richly nuanced theology of the rest of the text. But taken at face value, I find those last verses of Job just a bit troubling.
I want to say to God, “OK, lemme see if I got this right. After you give Job – who to say the least had seen more than his share of abject suffering – a thorough dressing down about your respective places in the cosmic scheme, he says, ‘O, wow! I had no idea. I shoulda just kept my mouth shut. Sorry, God.’
“And then, after he prays for the friends who had added so much insult to his injury, you give him ‘twice as much as he had before.’ That’s twice the livestock, twice the servants, twice the children, plus a bunch of money and jewelry. And he lives another one hundred and forty years to enjoy it, which ostensibly makes everything pretty much all right!
“Are you serious? What the heck am I supposed to do with that? Do you really expect me to preach it?”
Coming on the heels of Job 42, parts of Psalm 34 are just as difficult. The Psalmist seems pretty confident when he exclaims, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all. / He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken.” Not to be too flippant, but I’m not so sure I buy it, and I suspect there may be other readers who share my skepticism about the first-glance theology of either of these passages.
I’ve known or heard tell of too many counterexamples, too many genuinely good people who have suffered horribly for no apparent reason. Some of them are frankly inconsolable, and for others, justice is something they cannot even begin to imagine. What am I supposed to say to them? Am I supposed to show them Job 42? And don’t even get me started about all the people with way less than exemplary lives (like me, for example), or those who don’t give a flip about God who are by all appearances doing just fine, thank you very much.
Taken in isolation from the entire arc of the scriptural narrative, texts like these ring hollow at best, and at worst seem like cruel jokes. That’s why, as I said earlier, it’s important to keep reading. The alternative First Testament and Psalter texts – our Catholic sisters and brothers might gently tell us they’re the only texts – give something of a different perspective on things, in large part because they understand God working within a different, which is to say an eschatological, horizon.
The prophet Jeremiah, whom no one ever accused of being a Pollyanna, foresees in the wake of the scattering and exile of God’s people a coming restoration, a time when even the blind, the lame, and the pregnant will walk easily into and within the Land of Promise. The Psalmist, similarly, celebrates such a restoration, one in which the weeping “shall come home rejoicing, carrying their sheaves.”
Texts like these continued to give generations of God’s people hope in the bleakest of times, like when they were suffering at the hands of the Seleucids (i.e., the Greeks) or the Romans. They hung tenaciously to the belief that in spite of every appearance to the contrary, God’s anointed one, the Messiah, would in due time bring about their liberation and the restoration of all Creation.
That eschatological horizon might give us a more sanguine way to read Job 42. The Church Fathers insisted that all of scripture had been given for our edification, and when the literal sense of the text did not edify, it was a sign that the reader should seek another sense the Fathers called spiritual (which always had to be supported by the literal sense of the scriptural narrative).
In the Middle Ages, this way of reading scripture was further nuanced and described as the quadriga, where texts were understood to have as many as four meanings. The medieval called the sense of scripture having to do with the future, and specifically with the consummation of history, the anagogic; the Latin here is derived from a Greek word meaning “mysterious” and referring implicitly to things yet fully to be revealed.
The Latin ditty used to introduce novices to the quadriga concludes with the line “Quo tendas anagogia,” which roughly translates “The anagogic sense teaches where you might be tending.” The anagogic sense of Job 42 might therefore suggest that Creation and its entire membership is heading in the direction of restoration, where mourning and grieving receive comfort, justice is done, and brokenness is healed.
We have to take care here, for we are walking a tightrope between the so-called “prosperity gospel” and the “opiate of the masses,” neither of which is faithful to the biblical story. The gospel text helps us negotiate this precarious territory. Mark’s Jesus, who begins his public life with the gospel proclamation that God’s long-promised reign is at hand (1:14), sets out thereafter to show us that reign. His entire life is a series of demonstrations of the fact that although the reign of brokenness and oppression seems still to preside, those who are looking for it can see signs that God’s kingdom of healing and liberation has begun, and will in due course prevail.
The healing of the son of Timaeus is one such demonstration. Recognizing Jesus as the “son of David,” Bartimaeus cries out for mercy, and receives it in the very concrete form of having his sight restored. It seems apt that this reminder of the power of God’s reign over brokenness immediately precedes Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, where he who is God’s kingdom in person will meet its sternest test and prevail, even ultimately over the self-aggrandizing terror of an imperial cross.